Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Paris to Naples: Where we discover that traveling sucks

And now, at long last, it is time for us to leave Paris and head to Italy! I'm not one to dwell too much on the bad things in life, but there is really no way to put too much of a positive spin on our travel day from Paris, France to Naples, Italy.

I can say one thing: we were smart enough not to make any other plans for that day and for leaving po-lenty of time between connections, because things would have went exceedingly poorly if we hadn't.

A lesson here: if you're traveling between two cities in Europe, it is best to devote an entire day to the simple activity of traveling.

We had arranged for Paris-Shuttle, which owns a nice fleet of VW Vanagon type vehicles, to take us back to Charles de Gaulle airport. We scheduled them to pick us up almost 3 hours before our flight, which we thought was extraordinarily safe.

Well, the shuttle was late. Very late. The driver was very apologetic, polite and professional. He informed us that he was not the van that was originally scheduled to pick us up - that van had been in an accident (that was why he was late). He hurried us and our luggage into the van and took us on a wild ride around the Arc de Triumph circle and through the streets of Paris. We quickly learned that we had two other groups of passengers to pick up before we got to the airport. And I started to notice: the low gas bell had started to go off.

The driver drove like a Tijuana Taxi driver to the next stop and double-parked out front. There we sat, traffic weaving all around us while he ran in the hotel lobby. We see him run in and out of that lobby about ten times. Minutes pass. He obviously can't find the group. After about 15 minutes, he discovers they had went back to their room (!!) and quickly loaded them into the van. This happened with one other group - all Americans, I might add - and off we went. There were three people abreast in the front row, and a 60-ish woman was in the center. As we dashed through city streets, she heard the low-gas ding go off. She leaned over to get a good view of the gas gauge. She straightened up. She looked long and hard at the driver. Yep, she was now officially as frightened as we were.

We finally get on an expressway and hurry our way to Charles de Gaulle airport. It is worth noting that I had always seen fabulous pictures of this airport, so I had been looking forward to seeing it. Neither when we arrived in Paris nor when we departed did I see anything as spectacular as the pictures I had seen. We were in older, nastier parts of the airport, apparently.

We finally do make it to our terminal (what appears to be a commuter terminal by US standards) and to our gate (after much guesswork dealing with airline employees who spoke very minimal English) only to have an emergency alarm to off, requiring everyone to clear the terminal. It was repeated in French then English, but the English was so poor we had no idea what was being said. We just followed the mad dash out of the building. When in Rome, do as the Romans. After about an hour, we were allowed back in, took a shuttle out to the Eurofly aircraft sitting on the middle of the tarmac, and climbed the portable stairs to the aircraft. The plane was filthy. The ashtrays were stuffed with litter, the seats very unclean, and the employees grumpy.

We did make it through the crying baby and cranky seniors on board and landed in Naples where it was raining fairly heavily. The Naples airport is pretty tiny - no bigger than one terminal here in San Diego. When our luggage began appearing on the conveyor belt, a man snatched it off the belt before it got to us. It must look like his, I thought. He spun the luggage around and looked at it from every angle before placing it back on the belt. It wasn't until later that I noticed he walked off with black luggage, as opposed to our bright red set. ??? He couldn't have mistaken our luggage for his, so what exactly had he been doing?

Next we had studied bus schedules closely before we left the states, so we knew where the regular Curreri shuttle bus would be and when it would leave for Sorrento. We made it there with about a half-hour to spare. It was a Greyhound-style bus, the luggage compartments were open, and nobody was around. We shrugged and loaded our bags into the bay. A couple of minutes later, a young angry Italian bus driver admonished us for putting the bags on, made us remove them and take them to the compartments on the OTHER side of the bus. OK. Whatever.
It was raining, the traffic was thick, and darkness was about to fall. The part of Naples we could see from the bus window was not very appealing. This photo shows a few apartments with Mount Vesuvius in the background, only the base being visible through the rain clouds and fog.

Traffic continued to be thick as we made it around the bay of Naples on our way to Sorrento, where our hotel was located. We had done much reading and had been waved off from staying in Naples directly, as it has a reputation for being a dangerous city. Being unfamiliar with the language and area, we opted for a safer, more tourist-y area called Sorrento on the Amalfi peninsula. We had heard that American tourists stay in Amalfi, British tourists stay in Sorrento. Since we see Americans all the time, we opted to hang out with the Brits. Besides, Sorrento was located right on the local rail line, making it easy for us to visit the places we wanted to see.

As time passed, it grew dark and the road grew narrower. Before long, we were on mountain roads that hugged the coast. On the left side of the bus was the mountain that our tiny road had be dug into, to the right was a sheer cliff into the bay. And the rain continued. And he drove fast.

We would sometimes leave the main road (and I use that term loosely) to enter tiny burgs to drop people off....tiny towns with no more than a thousand people I would guess. How he navigated the bus in those cities I'll never know. As we made a few hairpin turns up one hillside, we encountered a traffic snarl. Eventually we saw one polizia standing in the middle of the road, his tiny Fiat police car blocking access, lights flashing. The bus driver rolled down his window. An arguement ensued. The bus driver, shockingly, turns the bus around at this wide spot in the road and proceeds back down the hill. At the foot of a bridge, the bus stops, he holds a conversation in Italian with the 10 to 15 other passengers, the driver exits and begins tossing luggage onto the roadway.

We are stunned. The other passengers exit. The driver gets back on and sees we are just now walking down the aisle. What is up, I asked. He explains there has been a landslide and the road is closed. The only other roadway to Sorrento would take 3 hours instead of the 10 minutes we had left. He said if we carried our luggage up the hill, we would see a railroad we could take to Sorrento.

We exit the bus. The rain has stopped. We are about an hour walk from Sorrento, in the dark, in a country we don't know, that has a language we don't speak. Lovely.

The other passengers had already started up the hill, so we gather our things and do the same. It is warm, very humid, wet, and steep. After 10 minutes or so, we encounter a little 20 foot round building that appears to be the train station. Except it is closed. The building is open, so I go inside hoping I can purchase a ticket from a machine. All of the signs are in Italian. I can't make heads or tails of them. Almost at the end of my rope, I stand in the middle of the dimly lit room and say "How do I buy a ticket to get on the next train to Sorrento?", hoping someone - anyone - within earshot will respond. After a few seconds, a young British woman walks up to me and says "Don't worry - none of us has a ticket. We are going to beg the conductor to let us on to ride to Sorrento." Her exact words. I'll never forget them.

So we walk outside the building and onto the thin ledge of cement next to the train tracks. We are at that point standing on a tressel. Hot, tired, hungry, and frustrated, I take the pocket camera out and snap this photo of my wife. It is amazing she could still have a smile on her face at this point. I can guarantee you that an hour after this was taken, the smile was gone for good for that day. The train tracks are in the darkness to the right of her face, the station directly behind me.

The train does eventually arrive, and we all get onboard with nary a question. The train is a small local narrow-gauge contraption on which one set of doors does not work properly. The conductor's assistant has to stand there and hold them closed. We eventually pull into the Sorrento station.

Being the king of good planning, I had printed out several Sorrento maps and stuck them in my pocket. It appears to only be 2 to 3 blocks from the station to our hotel, so we decide that in the wet streets at 9:30 at night, we are going to hoof it to the hotel. There aren't any cabs or people around anyway, so it seems the good choice.

Well, let me tell you something about Italian road maps, and this is reinforced everywhere we go: they are not accurate. Sometimes, not even close.

Another problem: there were no street signs! We had no idea what street was what! Eventually we reached an area that had a pole with hotel names written on arrow signs, sort of M*A*S*H style. We found the name of our hotel, Grand Hotel de la Ville, and followed the signs. At one point, my intuition goes off: I swear the hotel should be right here but the sign instructs us to turn right and continue. So, against my intuition, we turn right and continue. We follow the next sign and go further. We are sweating profusely by this point. We come to a 90 degree left bend in the road, and which there is a very upscale, ultra-wealthy hotel. We are toting a boatload of luggage, sweating like pigs, and at the end of our rope since the signs give us no hint about what to do now. So I sit down with our luggage and my wife goes in to beg the royalty for some clue.

She comes back out with instructions which appear to route us back up to where we were. We get an even bigger stink going by sweating for another 15 minutes following those directions and, sure enough, it takes us right back to where my intuition had went off....the hotel signs were all on the other side of the building. Later it dawns on us why the signage had led us astray - they were aimed at VEHICLES and all those roads we had traveled were one way streets, so they had routed us around what must have amounted to more than half a mile of extra walking.

So we walk into the hotel lobby, I take off my sport coat, my shirt is about 75% drenched in perspiration. My wife approaches the check-in clerk. There is accordian music wafting loudly from the adjacent room. I look up The lobby couch has about 6 senior citizens - all 75 or older - lined up cheek-to-cheek as if they are propping each other up. And they are all staring directly at us. What a sight we must have been barreling in like drowned rats after 10 PM.

The clerk then informs my wife that he will have to hold onto our passports until we check out. That was the straw that broke my camel's back - that poor clerk. I started to unload when he realized that there was no way that a huge scene was not about to be made. He politely states that he will make an exception and bring them up to our room in about an hour, but he had to have them for a little while to take care of administrative work. That calmed me down.

We went to our room - we knicknamed it "Gramma's Room" you'll see why in my next post - and went downstairs to see what was available in Sorrento to eat. We realized that there had been absolutely nothing open as we had walked through town, and there was nothing open in the hotel either. So we found the hotel bar, with double-doors that opened into the accordian ballroom - the ballroom would be off to the left of this photo. We sat down at a table in the bar (the one in the foreground of this photo), ordered two wines, and took a load off. The accordian music was accompanied by the most atrocious singing of bad American 1960s songs I have ever heard. And the room was full of thirty to forty 75 and over British seniors, most of them staring directly at the two drowned rat Americans gulping down their wine. The bartender brought us a bowl full of peanuts. We quickly polished off the nuts and ordered two more wines and more nuts. We did that for a third round, called that dinner, and ordered the check.

The bartender, sizing up what had just happened, said in a heavy French accent as he hands us the check:

"Next time, just order a bottle"

Stupid Americans.

1 comment:

Sandy said...

What a story!!!! This reminds me of some movie I saw where the whole day or weekend of someone's vacation (I think in New York) was fraught with mishaps.

You're such a good writer and the photos were great.

I really enjoyed this.